Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tom Durkin: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 22, 2014---Allegiance to present day race callers very often is a matter of taste, like appreciating a fine wine, a movie, favorite athlete, etc., etc.

Consequently, it follows that provincialism plays a huge role in formulating those preferences, just as one would for a favorite horse or jockey: Seabiscuit or War Admiral; Shoemaker or Arcaro; Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra?

And, so, when it comes to con the world of contemporary race callers, the majority of racing fans are aligned in two camps: Denman or Durkin?

Personally, it’s impossible for me to remain neutral. I, like so many others who have crossed paths with Tom Durkin during his 43-year career, consider him a cherished friend.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t strive for objectivity.

I have not listened to Denman’s calls nearly as many times as I’ve heard Durkin’s. But I can’t imagine, even if the coasts were reversed, I would remember as many of Trevor's calls as I would Tom’s.

Twenty-four Breeders’ Cups and 11 Triple Crowns has given Durkin far more opportunities to voice racing’s most memorable events, and he has had more than his share of “moving like a tremendous machine” moments:

There was Easy Goer and Sunday Silence “in a racing epic,” the Real Quiet-Victory Gallop Belmont photo: “a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth five million dollars; history... in the waiting.”

And, of course, Smarty Jones’ crushing Triple Crown bid, marked by Durkin’s diminishing crescendo as he informed 120,000 fans “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

But there are, too, the moments of whimsy, Durkin’s paean to Wallace Beery as Long John Silver with his “Arrrrr” call in Saratoga, or singing the scales as “Doremifasolatido” crossed the finish line in front.

One of Denman’s widely acknowledged gifts is his uncanny knack for picking up winning moves, anticipating outcomes before a fan might make the same surmise, including one in particular.

Until I googled it, I had forgotten that the Denman call I won’t ever forget took place 17 years ago. The horses for the Santa Anita Handicap were at mid-far turn when Denman said that trainer Richard Mandella’s horses could finish 1-2-3.

To this day, I don’t know how he could have known that, or had the cojones to make that call out loud. I consider myself a good race-watcher and I never saw it coming that far from the wire.

Calling one horse “moving like a winner” three furlongs from the wire is one thing; but three for the money? Never. But there they were: Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen at the wire, the runnerup coming from seventh of 11.

I first became aware of Durkin’s gifts one winter at Hialeah. My routine seldom changed: Get there early and find a seat in the back yard adjacent to the statue of Citation--the same one Michael Corleone drove passed in Godfather II.

I’d put my feet up on the fountain’s retaining wall, point my face toward the South Florida sun, and try to pick a few winners.

After making my bets, I’d either either walk out on the apron to watch it live or return to my place in the sun and listen to the call.

The first time I did this, the race was delivered with deadly accuracy, but it was more than that. The race unfolded perfectly in my mind’s eye, the word pictures not only indicating where each horse was but whether or not it had winning position.

I introduced myself to say how much he added to my Hialeah experience and we’ve been friends ever since.

There have been many great race callers that have filled the soundtrack of my racing life, including the legendary Fred Caposella, Joe Hernandez, Chic Anderson and Dave Johnson, to name just a few.

But with the exception of comedian Robert Klein’s hilarious takes on ‘Cappy’, no race caller has been more imitated than Durkin.

His phrasing, word pictures and drama-building cadence are mainstays in the lexicon of today’s best announcers, an homage paid by any one of them who describes a game front running winner as a horse that “won’t be denied.”

There are other phrases or words not generally heard anywhere else; a hot pace that’s “audacious,” an even pace conducted as “a steady beat,” slow fractions that are “nonchalant” or “calculated,” or the slowest ones, which are “pedestrian” or “soporific.”

But, to me, Durkin’s greatest attribute is making all the races he calls better, whether it’s “a filly in the Belmont” or a maiden claimer getting up in the final strides to win the nightcap.

Everyone has their favorite announcer and I have mine. But when racetrackers and fans are asked to join the conversation about who they believe is the greatest race caller of all time, the name Tom Durkin will not be denied.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 20, 2014

The Case for a Lower Case triple crown

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 18, 2014—I was happy to see the other day that Steve Haskin of the Bloodhorse suggested that the Triple Crown for Fillies—oops, make that lower case triple crown, insisted the late, great Joe Hirsch—for Fillies be revived.

Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. Again.

Now before anyone says it won’t have a smidgeon of the impact that the Upper Case version does, we are already aware. But that’s not the point, nor should it be.

This triad would be for thoroughbred racing fans that will care, and each race of the series could a possible anchor leg of an All-Stakes Pick 4, even if the events are overnighters with a purse of $100,000. Hopefully, it would get more support than that.

One of my fondest memories was of Mom’s Command winning the mile and a half Coaching Club American Oaks after having taken the Acorn and Mother Goose previously.

Even though she dominated her generation, not many believed she would go that far, but her class prevailed.

It was a real family affair as the Hall of Fame filly was owned by Peter Fuller and ridden by his daughter, Abigail. Fuller was a driving force behind the creation of a racing circuit in New England, once a hot-bed of thoroughbred racing and still home to passionate fans and horseplayers.

Then, of course, there was the great Davona Dale, another Hall of Famer that was so good she won two filly triple crowns, the older traditional version run at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont, and the same NYRA version won by Mom’s Command.

If there were one this year, it might have caught on nationally what with Kentucky Oaks winning Untapable reaching second in the NTRA three-year-old poll, now third behind Belmont Stakes winning Tonalist.

Many believe her to be the most talented sophomore in America. If not, she certainly has run her way into the conversation.

If a filly triple crown were to be resurrected, wouldn’t a national version with sensible spacing, preferably at the Upper Case tracks, be that be something worth seeing?

But why stop there? Why not a three race series for all divisions?

Yes, I know, something like this was tried years ago with the American Racing Series which generally was greeted with a collective yawn.

With more and more horse racing making its way back on television, good programming is a must. Why not a series in all divisions to promote interest and continuity, from the babies to the old pros?

The championship landscape in all divisions has changed. There are some divisional champions—juveniles and sprinters come immediately to mind—that are generally crowned after season’s end victories in the Breeders’ Cup.

That was the intended goal of the Breeders’ Cup, that, and it to be a traveling road show for thoroughbred racing. In the last decade, however, the accent has been on handle with added races that hardly reflect championship divisions.

The Marathon and Juvenile Sprint, for instance, were staged as ungraded events sans the seven-figure “championship” purses, their existence appearing to be little more than parimutuel fodder for the Friday programs.

Those kind of races notwithstanding, there is the other argument that when Breeders’ Cup crowns a champion it can do so at the expense of the regular season of traditional, high profile events. No better example than horse for course Beholder’s Distaff victory trumping Princess of Slymar’s considerable body of work in time honored events at different venues.

There would be no need to reinvent the field. If racetrack and industry executives were administered truth serum instead of the local Kool Aid, all could construct a consensus of the most important races in each division.

For example—truly as example only—a Grade 1 9-furlong series including the Donn Handicap, Stephen Foster Handicap and Whitney Handicap would be an very attractive package in attractive settings.

Older fillies and mares could face off in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps and Spinster, a triad providing a top class stage on which the female runners could establish their best-in-show credentials.

And if a three-year-old wanted to throw her hooves into the ring in the fall at Keeneland, that would only lend to the drama and provide greater championship definition.

An older horse turf series at 10 furlongs that features the Manhattan Handicap, Arlington Million and Clement L Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship Stakes could lend more definition to the Breeders’ Cup Turf, an event traditionally dominated by the Europeans.

Even if any of the above races have been reduced by circumstances and scheduling to becoming latter-day Breeders’ Cup preps, the winners could have raised their profiles so significantly throughout the year against top company as to hold safe their Eclipse Award lead vs a talented European interloper to be named later.

But it’s not limited to that. It’s about growing interest and business, with the added benefit of possibly growing the game if television networks do their jobs and package a triple crown, lower case, in all divisions.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Doing What’s Best for the Triple Crown Horses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 15, 2014—I’ve been taking on the issue of a Triple Crown schedule change for five years now and I must be doing a terrible job.

That observation has little to do with whether any recommendations are being considered or not: My failure is getting fans and practitioners conversant with the idea that a longer duration of the series could make the task more difficult, not less.

More so, this is about doing the right thing for the latter day Thoroughbred, about improving the overall quality of the series.

What’s it’s not about is making the feat easier, less worthy of wonderment, nor should it be seen as denigrating the accomplishments of the original Elite Eleven.

Progressive ideas in this game are never adopted without kicking, screaming and the collective gnashing of teeth.

It’s often been stated here that this industry can wear one down, but that’s probably the purpose of such a drill; living with the status quo.

But since when does the status quo improve anything? And there are more good reasons to alter the Triple Crown schedule rather than maintain it to provide some imagined perfect contextual link to the past.

More than any other sport, this is game is built on opinion and, since most horseplayers and owners are unsuccessful, it follows that much of that opinion isn’t very good.

All humans, especially racetrackers, tend to make issues more difficult than need be, thinking that all objections must be overcome before adopting progressive change, even when change includes acknowledgement of present-day and future realities.

Let’s consider change through the prism of fair, rational thought. Fair is not some dirty four-letter word.

Race horses notwithstanding, acknowledging that today’s athletes are better than their predecessors because of improved training techniques, better nutrition, equipment and facilities, gives reality its due.

If that premise is acknowledged to be true, comparisons among different generations are by their nature patently unfair. Is it fair to compare Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Jim Brown to O.J. Simpson (infamy notwithstanding), or Pete Rose to Ty Cobb?

All that remains then is opinion, based on perception or well-intended prejudice. Do we really know whether Secretariat would have dominated Citation the way he completely outclassed his peer group in 1973? Again, there is no context for comparing generations.

The all-time great athletes above played in different environments, under a variation of the rules, or with schedule changes. Just like a race horse can only beat what’s lined up next to him, domination needs no definition; greatness is unmistakably in the eye of all beholders, a reward unto itself requiring no further qualification.

Today’s thoroughbred, awash in a gene pool of raceday medication, is not comparable to any of the elite eleven, nor is it fair to them to do so. The modern American horse is bred for the sales ring, not the racetrack; mated to be at his best from eight to nine furlongs, rarely at 10, and certainly never at 12.

If you lined up a gate full of sprinters to compete in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, one will have his name engraved on the Belmont trophy; it will just have taken him a lot longer to get there.

The Kentucky Derby has grown to such an extent that it has become one of the most coveted prizes, if not the most in thoroughbred racing, knowing no geographic boundary. In the grand scheme of American racing, this will never change.

The Belmont Stakes--whether it’s calendar placement, a blend of track configuration and pilot error, or the shot-taking mindset that no American Thoroughbred is predisposed to running a mile and a half--will continue to attract a diverse field, especially “equine teenagers” that have undergone a late spring growth spurt.

But no one seems to value the Preakness as a classic unto itself. It has been reduced to a mere stepping stone for the chosen few and not the majority of the generation’s best that have earned their way to the top rung by successfully running a Derby gauntlet.

Resultantly, Preakness new shooters are more a collection of the second-tier variety and, given a long and storied thoroughbred history, the centerpiece of Maryland Jockey Club calendar deserves a lot more respect.

The main reason that the Preakness has become the Triple Crown’s red-headed stepchild is scheduling. Modern thoroughbreds are not predisposed to frequent competition, another argument against same-scheduling lending context to achievement.

Most horsemen don’t choose to run in the Belmont Stakes because their horses are just dying to run a mile and a half. Horsemen choose to run the Belmont because it’s five weeks from the Derby and because the modern Derby winner will be more vulnerable after his Preakness run.

Excluding the debilitating effects of raceday medication, what other unqualified explanation can be offered for the fact that 45 was the average number of starts in a thoroughbred’s career in the 1950s but is only 13 today?

Of course, racing has more pressing issues than fixing its most popular series, but does that mean it cannot be better?

What is particularly galling is that no one, practitioner, public and media alike, is willing to concede the possibility that extending the series could make it more difficult--as if even winning three consecutive claiming races at the same track is an everyday thing.

The HRI faithful know that I favor a first Saturday in May, Memorial Day weekend, and July 4th weekend Triple Crown schedule. To me, it’s Americana and an acknowledgement of the modern-day thoroughbred reality rolled into one.

Must the industry ask its equine athletes to do the impossible every year just to keep the dream storyline alive? And what about the animal’s remaining sophomore season and older horse campaigns for the majority of top-tiered three-year-olds?

Extending the Triple Crown season makes it possible for the winner of the first two legs to be at his best for the third—if, that is, his trainer can keep him at tops over a longer, sustained period.

Extending the season would increase participation in the entire series, not just the Preakness, and this extension would help insure that the Triple Crown aspirant’s competition also would also have a better chance to bring it’s 'A' game to Long Island. How does this make winning the Triple Crown easier?

If there’s a classics trophy with a horseman’s name on it, wouldn’t those owners and trainers be more inclined to test the Derby winner at a more reasonable distance rather than taking a 12-furlong crapshoot?

And doesn’t a bigger, better, and more experienced Preakness field make the task more difficult, not less? A fairer, more level playing field for all does not mean easier, it means better, and better is always harder.

During trophy ceremonies on Stephen Foster night Saturday at Churchill Downs, a contrite and humbled Steve Coburn spoke of a thousand text messages he received after giving his phone number out on national TV, and how 97 percent of agreed with him [about the Triple Crown’s inherent unfairness].

While his solution is not remotely based in reality, even if his estimates were hyperbolic, it was assuredly a lot of concern to the public. Coburn is brash and unfiltered in word and deed but none of it, however unfortunate it was at times, ever seemed untrue.

Indeed, if lots of the public agreed with him then there is no casual sports audience capable of understanding the nuances of thoroughbred racing. They only know what they see and hear on television.

During their post-race press conference, both Robert Evans and Christophe Clement indicated that the duration of the series should be changed for the better. To a large degree they benefitted from the current schedule but were sportsmen enough to admit that lengthening the series is the right thing to do.

It’s a bit sad that the connections of two previous Triple Crown winners thought more about their horse’s place in history than acknowledging that in all probability the modern thoroughbred has changed and no longer can be reasonably expected to replicate top form in a three-race five-week series.

Must the future mimic the past for tradition’s sake if the modern horse is unsuited to running its best without four-to-six weeks of recovery time, not to mention a series run at disparate distances in three different states in five weeks?

Things change. “Doing what’s best for the horse,” is a phrase that comes trippingly off the tongue in track press releases and when the cameras are rolling. As always, saying the right thing is a lot easier than its execution.

Written by John Pricci

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